- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Responding to a wave of popular protests, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi reshuffled his Cabinet on Tuesday, underscoring the growing influence of outspoken Shiite cleric and onetime anti-U.S. militant Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sheikh al-Sadr, who has long headed one of the most powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, has sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets on repeated occasions in recent months to demand political reform and a tougher stand against corruption from Mr. al-Abadi, himself a Shiite leader.

The 42-year-old cleric also has an increasing hold on parliament, where his followers hold a significant bloc of seats and are seen to be pulling the strings behind the political meltdown in Baghdad.

“He is able to still wield tremendous influence within Iraq. That’s clear by these current protests,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday as scores al-Sadr supporters demanded that Mr. al-Abadi purge party-affiliated politicians from his Cabinet.

The prime minister came through with six ministry-level nominees, and lawmakers gave him until Thursday to name more.

Mr. Toner said U.S. officials see Sheikh al-Sadr’s influence as benign “as long as he wants to be part of the political process and not work against it,” but there remain concerns about the Shiite cleric’s history since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

It was Sheikh al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militants who fought pitched battles against U.S. forces occupying Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The cleric was implicated in the sectarian civil war that later ripped through the nation, pitting Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites against each other.

But Sheikh al-Sadr appeared for a time to recede from public view almost as swiftly as he once dominated it.

In 2014, Sheikh al-Sadr suddenly proved his power anew. Renaming his Mahdi Army the “Peace Brigades,” he dispatched some 20,000 Shiite fighters to back the Iraqi government’s fight against the Sunni Salafist Islamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

More recently, Sheikh al-Sadr has been a major political player in Baghdad, emerging as a leading critic of Mr. Abadi’s failure to pass a sweeping reform package to combat corruption and cut government spending.

Jon Lee Anderson, who covered the 2003 invasion and its aftermath, has suggested that Sheikh al-Sadr’s re-emergence shows his shrewd sense of political timing.

“Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s failure to go through with promised reforms, including an overhaul of the government and new approach to tackling rampant official corruption, had been the focus of growing public discontent for some time when, in late February, Sadr resurfaced to demand action,” Mr. Anderson wrote this month in The New Yorker. “A hundred thousand of his followers joined him in one of Iraq’s biggest public demonstrations ever.”

In a twist, Sheikh al-Sadr is also reaching out to Iraq’s Sunnis, whose disenfranchisement by successive Shiite governments in Baghdad is seen by many to be the central cause of unrest in the nation.

“Al-Sadr’s actions from 2013 onwards do not follow the neat pattern of sectarian-driven politics,” said Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a professor of history with California State University, San Marcos, in a recent analysis for Al Jazeera.

The Cabinet reshuffle Tuesday was intended to break a long stalemate in the formation of the al-Abadi government. Parliament spokesman Emad al-Khafaji said lawmakers had approved nominees for six ministries: health; labor and social affairs; water resources; electricity; higher education; and culture.

But nominees for other key portfolios, including finance, foreign affairs, justice and oil production, still must be confirmed. With dozens of lawmakers having interrupted Tuesday’s vote with calls for the prime minister’s ouster, the crisis seems unlikely to abate anytime soon.

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